Recently, I strolled around the track at the local school with a handful of students discussing what subjects they liked most and who were their favorite teachers.
After a lap or two, a young man startled us from behind by sprinting right through the middle of our group and shouting something rude as he blurred passed.
“Whoa!” I asked, "Who was that?"
A darling blonde swept her long hair over her shoulder and said, "Oh, that's just my ex."
You would expect that interplay among high school students. No, these kids aren’t quite there.
Middle school? Nope, these kids still have to hold a hand when crossing the street.
They couldn’t possibly be in elementary school, could they?
Indeed, my walking buddies were third-graders.
I quizzed the kids as we continued circling the track. “How many of you have already had a boyfriend or girlfriend?” Almost half said they had.
“Have you ever been on a date?”
A few brave students said they had, and then explained that a “date” for kids their age usually means meeting at a predetermined place on the playground during recess.
“Do you actually call them dates?” I asked. “Do other boys and girls watch them on the playground and think it’s a date?”
“Yeah, duh,” one of them answered, presumably for the group. Then he added an epic eye roll, presumably just because.
Consider this — these boys and girls are 8 and 9 years old. They aren’t far removed from potty training and “Sesame Street.” They still ask to be tucked in at night and have to be reminded to wash their little hands.
What are they talking about on these playground dates? How much they get from the tooth fairy?
Fresh off my eye-opening session of Elementary School Dating 101, I decided to ask some older students about their own relationship experiences. Kids in the fourth and fifth grade reported being dropped off by parents for “dates” at places like the local roller rink and arcade — sometimes with an adult, sometimes without.
Who in the world is supervising them? Sponge Bob?
It’s not as if kids are hiding it from mom and dad. Recently, a friend used social media to announce how sad she was over her third-grade son’s first broken heart. His girlfriend had broken up with him the day before and he was simply devastated.
What ended the relationship — a dispute over the juice box?
I get it. They’re not dating the way older teens date and most are not yet engaging in sexual activity. But according to the American Academy of Pediatrics, some certainly are. Their research reports that 16 percent of children have had sex by age 15. By age 16, 33 percent have had sex and by age 17, the number jumps to 48 percent and then to 61 percent by age 18.
Maybe we should pray for a global cootie outbreak.
All familial and parental circumstances are different and we should be careful not to judge or apply a standard across all kids. But can we agree that allowing or even encouraging kids to date — no matter the definition — at such a young age is cause for concern?
Intelligent parents can debate and disagree about the exact age for dating, but promoting emotional relationships between elementary school students is like giving them access to dangerous weapons and hoping nothing goes wrong.
There are reasons we don’t let children play with knives, chemicals or guns. All are useful when used properly.
Likewise, we don’t let young teens drive cars because they’re simply not ready. After training, at the proper age and with parental support, their time will come. But putting an untrained child in a car before their time and praying they safely travel from point A to point B is like allowing a third-grader to have a boyfriend or girlfriend.
We live in a world where everything has to happen immediately. Website didn’t load instantly? Snooze. Not wealthy by 30? Lazy. Bloomin’ Onion took too long at the Outback? Light them up on Facebook and scrap the tip.
Fine, but can’t we let kids be kids? Why not encourage them to walk a little slower around the track? There will be plenty of time for broken hearts and hard-learned lessons about love and dating.
When our kids sing the words, "Two little lovebirds sitting in a tree, k-i-s-s-i-n-g ... " they should be playing, not recapping their weekend.
Jason Wright is a New York Times best-selling author of 10 books, including "Christmas Jars," "The Wednesday Letters" and "The 96th Annual Apple Valley Barn Dance." He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or jasonfwright.com.